They were a young group of boys, full of fear. Although they tried to act tough, these young self-admitted gang members were way out of their comfort zone of the inner city. I was their wilderness instructor for the weekend, and we were out in the California desert in Joshua Tree National Park. I had spent the day building trust and giving acceptance, and now I had them atop of one of the largest rock massifs in Hidden Valley, known as Cyclops. Their goal was to rappel down the 160-foot rope to the safety of the terra firma below. This was no normal rappel that had been set up; this was 150 feet of free air. No rock wall to walk down—just them, the rope, and a fist full of fear.
At first they “ganged” up on me and refused the challenge. I had to figure out why—and it wasn't what you might first think: the height or the fear of falling. No, these tough guys did not want to fail in front of each other. Once I talked with them, listened to them, and encouraged them to expose the real reason for their refusal of the challenge, we engaged in a deep discussion about what failure really is.
Failure is not about being unable to accomplish something: failure is not trying! "I know it may be scary, but I'll be right there with you," I reassured them. "I won't let anything bad happen to you."
In that situation, some may see tough looking gang members, but I only saw young fearful boys who desperately wanted to belong. Soon, the youngest boy, and some might say the weakest, said he would rappel down. In that moment, I knew I had all of them! As the young skinny dark haired boy descended into young manhood, I watched a life change right in front of me. Full of pride, he was the first to overcome his fear and, in that moment, became the biggest and bravest of his group. As I looked back at the group still on top, all tied together on a safety rope, they began to loudly beg to be next. The very definition of failure had changed!
From the top of Cyclops, it seems you could see forever. The millions of Joshua trees stretched out to the horizon like a 1960s shag carpet on the desert floor. Earlier in the day, clouds began building to our west, and so I kept a watchful eye on the horizon. Time was not on our side. But could I get all of the boys off the top before the skies opened up? By the look of the heavy dark clouds on the horizon, Mother Nature was angry. Her clock was ticking, and she seemed determine to drive me off my perch.
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After each boy descended, I assessed the oncoming storm. I could already see the angry flashes of light as the clouds punished the ground below with massive volts of electricity. I strained to hear the loud report of the thunder but for now, it was too far off. The other instructors and I knew we had to be diligent if we were going to get each boy down the thin 10mm rope safely. As the warm air shifted to the storm’s cool stiff breeze and the smell of fresh rain filled the air, we knew time was running out. As the last boy reached the bottom, I quickly dropped the ropes and cleaned the pieces of safety gear of the top. I scurried down the backside of Cyclops as the first raindrops began to fall and the thunder echoed off the rock walls. Meanwhile, my partners scrabbled to get the boys to cover and ready them to ride out the beast that was bearing down on us.
By the time I caught up with the group, we were close to camp and the tents. The rain pounded the ground, and the thunder and lighting seemed like it was just next door. The boys were tucked away in a large tent, bragging about how cool they were for accomplishing such a feat. To them, the rappel was the only thing to fear today, but as instructors, we knew this storm presented far more dangers than the day's rappelling exercise. The flashes of light and booming thunder were now coming almost simultaneously.
I poked my head into the tent; each boy was sitting with his back against the tent wall, posturing his toughness. This storm was no big deal to them.
That is, until a single bolt of lightning hit just a few feet from the tent.
This magnificent feat of nature, full of danger, blasted onto the ground, demanding to be feared. Electricity buzzed as the bolt pierced into the ground. The deafening crack of thunder that followed sounded more like a horrific explosion trying to burst my eardrums. The awesome surge of energy seemed to go through my body. I could hear the sizzle and smell the burning as the bolt connected the clouds and ground for a split second, and I was mesmerized by nature’s display of strength and terrifying energy.
My instinct to duck was only muted by my concern for the boys. I glanced back into the tent to see these gang members once again reduced to the young boys they were. All of them simultaneously moved to the center of the tent and huddled together, clinging to each other for safety.
I often reflect on that day when I think about fear. Fear has a way of stripping us down and exposing our true selves. All of our facades, our acting and posturing, seem to vanish in the face of fear. And when we are in a place of transparency, a place of perfect vulnerability, we find something amazing. We find our true friends. We find acceptance. We find ourselves!
Do we ever allow our children to see us? Do we allow ourselves to be that transparent, that vulnerable? Or do we model a facade, a fake, or an act that is neither believable nor possible to live up to? I know I have allowed my own children to see me at some of my weakest moments. They did not run nor hide. That comforted me. They accepted me and ultimately they have made me stronger!
When lightning struck, these gang members allowed others to see their vulnerability and even the toughest among them supported one another. How do you react when fear or lightning strikes in your life?